New Site C reality: damned if you do the dam, damned if you don’t

Sometimes in life you have to choose which of two questions to answer:

How on earth did this happen?

Or: what on earth do I do now?

In John Horgan’s case, there might be a related question to answer: why exactly did I take this job?

Short of ceding the Site C territory and leaving the new occupant to pay the bill, Horgan has encountered the first Big Question of his premiership.

Last week the British Columbia Utilities Commission (BCUC) released what could quickly be called The Damning Dam or The Dam Damning report on the hydroelectric project.

The rear-view mirror view is ultra-ugly: an optimistic forecast on need and a delusional budget on expense, a megaproject with meta-problems.

But the path ahead is no walk in the woods: the options range from poking your eyes with needles to removing your fingernails with pliers.

It is difficult to know how much political capital Horgan earned in opposition and as a campaigner in questioning the intelligence of the project. But in raising and championing those matters he now finds himself in power with no economically or politically frictionless move.

The BCUC report, elegantly and bloodlessly crafted without any particular emphasis on the road to pursue, suggests that (a) the $8.3 billion project is really a $10 billion one, (b) termination of Site C will be an additional $1.8 billion beyond the $2.1 billion in expenditures to the end of the year, so a nearly $4 billion solution, and (c) its in-service date of seven years this month is dubious. Importantly, vitally and crucially, there are 2,000 jobs to be killed with a stroke of a pen in a region of the province where 2,000 jobs don’t just happen with a stroke of a pen.

This has to be a time when Horgan must be happy he has already surrendered his hair.

His aide-de-coalition, BC Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, was quick to pounce on the report as the “final nail in the coffin.”

But the coffin is gilded and the nail is made of a gemstone yet to be discovered and thus profoundly expensive.

You might envy Horgan his job, but on this matter you certainly wouldn’t want it.

For some time now, of course, most every expert weighing in on Site C has been raising questions about its viability: the supply and demand forecasts, the budgeting, the return on investment, the environmental impact, the First Nations opposition and the emergence of other energy forms that would surpass it in terms of efficiency. Almost nothing has been running in its favour, except the jobs – and we all know they are no small matter.

If you were to time-travel and know then what you know now, you would be placing bets on different schemes to power our province and sell our abundance to the far-flung needy.

But there comes a time when the work is so far along that stopping it makes less sense than proceeding with it.

Which is rather where Horgan finds himself today, trying to weigh the competing practical qualities of job preservation and sunk costs against job killing and throwing no more good money after not-so-good.

Moreover, this isn’t his only hill to climb.

He is reaching peak acronym madness: beyond BCUC is ICBC (and perhaps BCLC) before he can stop the bleeding of the books. The remedial accountancy on BC Hydro and ICBC is rather like an anchor on the boat as he tries to water-ski – political long-range misery in the way of short-range spending on matters of higher priority.

It matters generally not that he didn’t create the problems. Indeed, how he resolves them might be more punitive politically than what the perpetrators experienced. How’s that for fairness?

Upon the report’s release, Horgan’s Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Michelle Mungall preferred to speak via press release: “This will be an extremely difficult decision.” How’s that for frankness?

A verdict is expected by the end of the year, so Horgan has two more questions as he ponders his role with Christmas looming: do I play the unfettered Santa or the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge?

Sure you wanted this job?

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.